NLDS: Five takeaways from the Nationals’ Game 2 win over the Cubs

WASHINGTON — Five takeaways from the Washington Nationals’ 6-3 comeback victory over the Chicago Cubs in Game 2 of the National League Division Series:

No Wrigley hangover

It was a sucker punch, really, that 1-2 haymaker Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman threw at the Chicago Cubs in the eighth inning Saturday night. Up 3-0, five outs from a 2-0 NLDS lead, the Cubs instead watched in horror as two of their relievers were on the wrong end of October history.

Yet it’s doubtful Carl Edwards Jr. – who gave up Harper’s game-tying run run blast – and Mike Montgomery (Zimmerman’s go-ahead three-run shot) will have much lingering trauma.

They were around last year, when the Cubs faced 2-1 and 3-1 deficits in the NL Championship Series and World Series, and helped the Cubs erase a 5 ½-game second-half deficit this year.

Hangover? This is a team that builds Sunday’s workout day around watching NFL games. And they’ve seen worse.

“We’ve given up way bigger home runs than that before,” notes first baseman Anthony Rizzo. “We gave up a home run to Rajai Davis to tie (Game 7 of the World Series) in the eighth inning.

“It’s part of the journey. You’ve got to embrace it. It’s obviously not a good feeling to lose, but it’s part of the experience.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that sounds like something straight out of a self-help guide authored by Joe Maddon. The Cubs certainly appear to take on the veneer of their ultra-chill manager. Almost enough for you to believe them.

“He’s going to go right back on the mound and mow some guys down,” says third baseman Kris Bryant of Edwards. “I love having him on the mound; I love having him on my team. He’ll get them next time.”

Says Montgomery, the winning pitcher in World Series Game 7 after the aforementioned Davis round-tripper:  “Last year, there were so many times we got down a bit or lost a game, and it was how we responded to it. The next couple games were the real difference-maker. Now it’s about forgetting this loss and getting on to the next one.”

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Bryce Harper is … back?

Until the eighth inning, Harper had a middling single to show for his first seven NLDS plate appearances. He looked a bit iffy on a pair of routes in the outfield.

And in his final five regular season games after returning from a near-catastrophic knee injury, he had no extra-base hits in 18 at-bats.

So after Edwards hung a curveball and Harper hit it in the general vicinity of the D.C.-Maryland border, is all well?

“I think he’s totally fine,” says Bryant, who has been watching Harper play since both were tykes in Las Vegas.

Says Nationals manager Dusty Baker: “He’s on the way. You know, he’s not quite back. Like I said, he hung a slider to him and he deposited it in the upper deck. Hopefully, that’s the beginning.

“The longer we play, the better Bryce will be, because each pitch he sees, that’s leading toward him getting his timing back.”

Indeed, Harper’s return came without the aid of minor league rehab games, instead relying on simulated games with Nationals minor leaguers up from instructional league to pitch to him. And he’s had just 28 plate appearances, including playoffs, since his return, which is the equivalent of about 10 days of spring training.

The Cubs may not see the best of Harper. But he theoretically gets more dangerous with every trip to the plate.

Red-hot Rizzo

Remember when Rizzo started the 2016 playoffs 1 for 25, dropping his career postseason average to .123 (7 for 57)? Yeah, neither can we.

Rizzo finally got untracked midway through the NLCS against the Dodgers, and the October version of himself has been unstoppable since, with 20 hits in his last 48 postseason at bats, a .417 average. That includes three hits in this series – a key RBI single in Friday’s Game 1 victory and a go-ahead two-run homer in Game 2 that would have been the difference.

Even some of his outs are good – Rizzo’s nine-pitch at-bat in the first inning against Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez ended in a strikeout, but set the tone that Gonzalez wouldn’t be too long for this game.

Batting behind Bryant and in front of imposing catcher Willson Contreras, Rizzo is problematic for any foe. Not that he’s hung up on his hot streak.

“I’m 0 for my last 1,” he said, referring to his eighth-inning double play ball induced by reliever Ryan Madson. “You gotta move on.”

Capital punishers

The highlight reels will immortalize Harper and Zimmerman’s home runs. The plate appearances by the men sandwiched between them, however, may be a better indication of the Nationals’ fortunes this series.

As the Nationals started off 3 for 42 through these first two games, the struggles of Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy seemed particularly jarring. Rendon enjoyed an MVP-caliber season, hitting 25 homers and posting a .937 OPS. Murphy once again challenged for the batting title, hitting .322 with 25 homers, and was an absolute menace (1.059 OPS) the past two postseasons with the Nationals and Mets.

The crowd was still in full roar from Harper’s game-tying homer when Rendon drew a walk from Edwards. Montgomery came on to face Murphy, who was hitless in six NLDS at-bats.

What happened next was classic Murphy: An inside-out cue shot the opposite way to set the stage for Zimmerman.

In the hyper-small sample of the postseason, micro-struggles and successes are magnified. But with Rendon also homering Saturday, he and Murphy’s plate appearances served notice that the Nationals lineup more often than not is a nightmare to deal with.

Waiting for Max

It’s not often a reigning Cy Young Award winner – and possible back-to-back honoree – who’s fully rested sits out a playoff series until Game 3. Yet that was the hand the Nationals were dealt when Scherzer’s final regular season tune-up ended after a hamstring injury.

The shadow he cast over this series grew smaller as he was first scratched from Game 1, and then Game 2; suddenly, Scherzer would only get one start against the Cubs.

But now, rather than pitching for the Nationals’ lives, he’s in position to drop the hammer on the Cubs and tilt the series into the Nationals’ favor.

“I think the train’s coming,” Harper said. “We’re a great team. We’ve got Max coming in Game 3.”

And the Cubs are fully expecting Mad Max in all his grass-stomping, mound-stalking glory, hamstring concern or not.

“Pitch count? It’s Max Scherzer,” says Rizzo. “He’ll let them know his pitch count.”

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